It’s been nearly 20 years and I am drained.
As I listened to her breathe on the other end of the phone while I asked pertinent questions about the radiology procedures I was scheduling for her, I noticed a break in her responses. I paused. I could hear her softly crying and everything in me shifted. This had been a moment for me to turn up the sunshine — to be my whole and empathetic self — not to cry along with her, but to change the atmosphere. It had been my moment, as it has been hundreds/thousands of times, to lift the spirits of another.
When scheduling a newly diagnosed cancer patient, it is almost always emotional for me. The invasive procedures or radiology scans will soon become their norm, but upon that first scheduling experience, there are questions unfamiliar to them. Some things require responses that are sure to open and pour salt into fresh wounds. I could tell she had become exhausted and had probably had her fill with speaking to scheduling staff, medical professionals, and abiding by the oncologist’s recommendations.
It isn’t every day of your life prior to this “new thing” you have been tasked with answering, “Can you sit and stand without assistance?” or “Are you allergic to IV contrast?” or “Have you had any recent scans or procedures related to this condition outside of this organization?” I want to be quick, but I want to be thorough. I want to ensure the details of the procedures have been given, but I also want to recognize and feel where the patient is during our scheduling conversation.
And this lady, at 86, was not in a good place. And why should she be?
Mine was an unfamiliar voice to her. Regardless of how calming and reassuring I had been, I was still a stranger — giving her details for a nuclear medicine whole-body bone scan and a CT chest/abdomen/pelvis with contrast — both to be done in tandem, on the same day. I heard her sniffling and my mind nearly shut down. I had to think of something to get her back with me on the call — back to the place of acknowledgment of this damning reality, and I did it my way — the polite, comedic way.
“Ma’am. You let me know when you’re ready, and we’ll begin looking at arrival times which range from crack-of-dawn-early to just right after sunrise early, and we’ll go from there.”
When I heard her giggle and get herself back in sync with me, I chuckled too. I assured her our technologists would take great care of her and we could take the time we needed for the call. She had the floor. This had been her time to allow it all to sink in and marinate, and I would select the date and time when she was ready.
After the brief comedic segue, the appointment was scheduled, and I had to get her transferred to yet another department for another appointment. But I am not the type to simply cold transfer our patients. I want to be sure someone will be ready for them, and on the line, to get them scheduled. I informed her of this process by saying, “Now that my task is done for your radiology appointments, I will get you connected with another team member to schedule your last appointment. Is there anything else I can do to assist you at this time?”
She laughed — still caught off guard by the description of the times for her appointments with our department. I knew the call ended on the note it needed to when she said, “No, sweetheart. You have done all I need you to do today.”
It has been nearly 20 years in the medical field, and it is weighing on me — breaking me down in ways I never thought I would ever witness. I remind myself I am where I am called to be, but every time I do this, I feel as though I am reassuring myself for what, exactly? Why? If my heart was still truly in it, would I need this reassurance? Would it be required? If I wanted to continue in the medical field, shouldn’t it just all flow rhythmically and naturally, like water?
How a “Stanley Sugarman” quote made me think of her.
After I scheduled my patient mentioned above, I had another patient who had called to see if her orders had been ready for several MRI scans. She began the conversation by letting me know she had just had a stroke several weeks ago and the day before — woke up to complete blindness in her right eye. Her scans, she had been told, would be STAT requests and needed to be scheduled for the next day, which would have been Friday, June 17, 2022.
I had been gathering myself after the previous call, however; I needed to begin the search for her orders. Unfortunately, the orders had not been in the system, and after reaching out to the team to see if they had been in the queue or on the backend awaiting transcribing, they were not there either.
I cannot tell you the number of times I have to say, “I apologize. Unfortunately, we do not have any orders for your scans.” It is not something a nervous, suffering, and anxiety-ridden person wants to hear. What most patients want to hear almost all the time is, “I see your orders right here and we can proceed with scheduling your appointment.”
Upon hearing her orders had not been received, she told me of the suffering she had endured and how she was simply tired and wanted to know what was going on with her. As a patient with multiple sclerosis, having to undergo MRIs would not be her first rodeo, but total blindness in one eye was. How do I make this right? How do I again shift the atmosphere?
Before I could tell her what the next steps would be, she stated she would reach out to her referring doctor and see if they were, in fact, faxing her orders to our organization. I provided her with our fax number just in case the previous submission went to another department. I advised her of our office hours and informed her to please call us back as soon as she heard from her provider so we could proceed with getting her scheduled.
She had mentioned being told she may need to be admitted, and upon hearing this, I informed her the doctor recommending this would need to correspond directly with the admitting team at the hospital. She ended the call with me to pursue further investigation with her doctor’s office.
There are days that pummel me into submission — days when I feel as though I cannot hear about another grand mal seizure, stroke, aortic aneurysm, or the many forms of cancer metastasizing from one site to various other parts of the body. Days that seem to travel alongside each other sizing me up, testing my strength. This past week covered me in so many of these days, and I am just happy I made it through the week.
Last night, I watched the new Netflix movie starring Queen Latifah and Adam Sandler, Hustle, and I allowed myself to get lost in their veteran, consistently on-point talent for close to two hours. Adam Sandler’s character, Stanley Sugarman, says something that made me think of my cousin, and I shook my head as I heard him say it:
There was only one guy who knew what I was capable of, and he died. — Stanley Sugarman
I am capable of so much. I have far too many talents and gifts, and I know I can do something else that doesn’t eat away at my soul as much as the medical field is doing now. My cousin knew this. She drilled it into my head on the days I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. These days, I replay her advice in my head — pulling the love she shared with me from the deepest places within me and allowing it to be a constant reminder.
I can still do what I want to do. I can still make it all happen. The question, though, is when?
When you need a pick-me-up, visit the babies.
I can always count on my baby cousins to light up my world. Spending time with them puts me in a whole other place — one where happiness seems to pull up next to me with little coaxing. Today, though, only one was home, but he was enough. Caison is growing up so fast, and I feel like time is being cruel with just how fast he’s growing. Every time I see him, he looks like he’s grown an inch.
The young one is full of energy, has an in-your-face personality, and still gives the best hugs a four-year-old will ever give. When I need a reminder of just how beautiful life can be, and how I am not meant to wallow continually in the dumps, I spend time with my baby cousins.
His mother is an expert hugger also, so I see where the ability comes from. I am blessed to have an affectionate family — to hear, “Text me when you get home” every time I turn my back to walk out the door. Sometimes, the babies will chime in, “Be safe!” and that makes it sweeter.
Visiting them rejuvenates me — stocks me with the will to go on and be so damn outstanding.
The week was hard, but it didn’t win.
I had a hard week but I am here to share it — I can talk about it. I am of sound mind, I still have a quick tongue, and my heart is full of love. This past week may have had me up against the ropes a few times, but it did not knock me out. We tussled in the ring for 8 rounds, and I lived to tell you about it.
It was a hard one, but it didn’t win.
Death is with you all the time; you get deeper in it as you move towards it, but it’s not unfamiliar to you. It’s always been there, so what becomes unfamiliar to you when you pass away from the moment is really life. — bell hooks
Welcome to The Grieving Room. I am here. You are here. We are not alone in this.
See you next Saturday.
©2022 Tremaine L. Loadholt Originally published in The Grieving Room newsletter via LinkedIn.